BRATTLEBORO, Vt. — Food Connects, a marketing, networking and delivery nonprofit that works with small and organic farms and food producers, scored $45,000 from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets (VAAFM) this week – one of eight grants by the agency aimed at increasing consumer access to locally-grown food.
That $45,000, spread over two years, will assist Food Connects’ activities in the Upper Valley. The group offers online ordering, easy invoicing and consolidated deliveries to make it easy for local producers and buyers to find each other. Their mission is to grow a sustainable local food economy.
Founder and Executive Director of Food Connects Richard Berkfield said, “We’ve already started selling products from Upper Valley producers in the Keene and Brattleboro area to our current customers, and some Brattleboro and Keene products to customers in the Upper Valley.”
Food Connects works with Vital Communities, a nonprofit that “cultivates the civic, environmental, and economic vitality of the Upper Valley” according to its mission statement.
“They had been hearing from their constituents there was a need,” said Berkfield. “They encouraged us and invited us to have conversations with Upper Valley producers.”
Food Connects employs a sales manager who can help producers with marketing, but “we’re more of a delivery service,” said Berkfield. “Even maintaining a driver right now can be a burden for our producers, and we can help with that.”
They also connect producers with potential markets. “We’re trying to find matches for products not currently sold,” he went on. “For instance, goat milk gelato from the Upper Valley; we’re helping them find markets.”
The nonprofit works with all types of producers, not only small farms or organic farms. “Some of our customers want organic, and some want locally sourced products. We work with small farmers to mid-scale farms.”
Most of the 70-plus producers working with Food Connects are looking to diversify or add to their revenue streams, and the products are a small percentage of their overall sales. Food Connects has several different programs; the one that touches on most Claremont residents is the Farm to School program, which brings local farm products directly to school cafeterias. The Abby Group, which supplies Claremont’s school lunch/breakfast program, buys through Food Connects.
An advantage to consumers of using Food Connects is being able to know exactly where the food comes from. “All of our produce, meat, dairy, and baked goods are source-identified,” said Berkfield.
For producers, the advantage is in an 80% return; far more than they would make in traditional large markets.
For Upper Valley residents, Berkfield sees a three-fold payoff: healthier food, a stronger economy as food dollars stay local, and support for local farms and businesses.
Berkfield said, “Food systems in general have been a passion and an interest of mine for a long time. It’s a way to impact rural and economic development, environmental issues, water quality, public health, social justice and the loss of our agrarian heritage, our working landscapes.
“This grant is really great for us right now,” he continued, “because we’ve started to build more connections in the Upper Valley and we can go to the next level with it.”